The climb up 16 flights of steps in armored tactical gear while carrying heavy weaponry separated the men from the boys. The gathered forces of law enforcement from all conceivable branches had milled around outside Black C.A.S.T.L.E. for hours with little else to do besides rotate for coffee breaks and check the score of the hockey game. When a portion of the 16th floor had been annihilated in the blast, with shards of glass and flaming debris plummeting to the earth in full view of gathered spectators and news cameras, it was time for the boys in blue and the men in black suits to get into action. Luckily for them, someone on the inside had opened the door to invite them in.
They came in as a swarm. The local S.W.A.T. team swept through the first floor with practiced precision while their uniformed cohorts held the perimeter outside. When the heavy-duty guys had given the all-clear for the lobby, the more mobile enforcers flooded in with sidearms drawn and simple kevlar vests protecting their vitals. As S.W.A.T. secured one floor and moved onto the next like a creeping fog, the others made a beeline for the 16th floor, the site of the explosion, the center of the action. Some peeled off early due to exhaustion and lack of training; they covered these facts up by offering to clear the lower floors. For Agent Cohen, that was just fine. The fewer wannabe heroes he had to deal with, the better.
On the 15th floor, Cohen led the final charge with a few surviving members of the local PD who were young enough for the climb and eager enough to prove themselves, along with a State Trooper who did weekend marathon runs for the fun of it. The FBI agents had remained outside to oversee things; Cohen had thanked them for it, mostly because it kept them out of his way.
By the time Cohen’s team had reached the top floor, the biohazard response team and medical personnel had begun to filter in through the facility to assess the situation and take care of the wounded. S.W.A.T. was still 10 floors behind them. If Cohen was going to need a breaching team to get through any locked doors, he’d have to wait. To his surprise, the door to the lab stood open before them. It was blasted nearly to bits, like everything else in the hallway beyond it.
The place was burnt to hell. A sharp, chemical smell–Like piss on a campfire, the State Trooper said–saturated the remains of the hallway. Gray water sloshed around their feet as they moved down the corridor. A trickle of water rained down from the sprinklers overhead even as exposed electrical wires arced and sparked. A lab door fell from its damaged hinges and crashed to the ground, spooking one of the officers who almost filled the empty space with a hail of bullets. Smoky wind whipped through the new breezeway that had been opened up by the explosion, carrying ash, aerosolized chemicals, and the strange smell of cooked flesh. If Cohen hadn’t seen Harry Strong’s hand sticking out from underneath a fallen door, he would have missed him entirely.
“Give me a hand here,” Cohen said, already squatting to lift the door off the body. The State Trooper holstered his gun and took the other end of the door. They lifted it, and then let it fall to the floor with a crash. The trooper wrinkled his nose at the sight and smell of Harry Strong; Cohen leaned in, checked for a pulse and any hint of breath. He found both, just barely.
Cohen radioed the situation into the FBI agents who could coordinate the medical team’s arrival on the spot. “Stay with him,” he ordered the trooper.
“Agent Cohen! We’ve got a live one!” A rookie cop, spread-legged and gun drawn, stood over the body of a man laying on the blasted floor of the hallway. He was curled in the fetal position and clutching his shoulder. Cohen approached and gently pressed the cop’s arms down, lowering the man’s drawn gun. He didn’t need any trigger-happy accidents, especially not one that would ice a potential witness.
“Can you hear me?” Cohen asked. The man on the floor grunted and rolled to a sitting position. Cohen steadied him.
“Yeah, you and that damned ringing in my ears,” the man said. Cohen took in the sight of him: Black C.A.S.T.L.E. emblem on his button-down shirt, which was singed but not terribly burned; a bullet wound in his shoulder had bled out into the fabric, but the flow had been staunched; the man wore a holster but carried no gun. “‘bout time you boys showed up.”
Cohen radioed into the FBI coordinators again. “Additional casualty to report. GSW to the shoulder. Priority low.” He turned his attention back to the facility’s injured guard. “Just take it easy; help is on the way. Can you tell me what happened?”
“Sure,” Stan said with a grunt of pain. Here was his big performance of the evening at long last. He would relish every second of it. Even the dull ache throbbing in his shoulder gave him inspiration and lent his story an air of gravitas. Just thinking about that word made him want to smile. “I’d be happy to … but I think you oughta know that there’s still one of those nutjobs running around this place. He’s armed, and he has a hostage.”
“Can you describe them?”
“Hmm, the terrorist’s a white guy, early 40s, about 5’10”, dark eyes, dark hair. The girl is in her 20s, some kind of Asian.” Stan kept his description clinical. He fought back the frustration that the thought of that little bitch conjured up. He focused on his shoulder instead and gave another gasp of pain.
“Did you see where they went?”
Stan nodded back toward where the Agent and his team had come in. “Somewhere off in that direction, through the doors. After that, I don’t know.”
Cohen radioed the descriptions and a brief update on the situation to his coordinators, who told the sweep teams to be on the lookout. He kneeled down next to Stan. “I’m going to have an officer here take your full statement, if you’re up to it.”
“Sure, sure,” Stan said. Cohen gave him a pat on his uninjured shoulder and stood. While the guard started to relate his no-doubt harrowing story to the waiting officer, Cohen investigated the rest of the burned-out hallway. There was no telling if what he was looking for was still here, if it had been moved, or if it had simply been blown to bits along with the rest of this place. But as Cohen’s attention was caught by the spark of light flashing off of a key stuck in the freight elevator’s access panel, he had a feeling that his search was about to get a little more interesting.
He called the elevator up and found it empty upon its arrival. He stepped in and pushed one of the only other buttons in the thing, the one bound for the sub-basement. He descended, gun drawn and at the ready.